Interview with James Hill
What other titles did you work on at London Editions?
Lots, mostly pre-school as that was where the market was headed: Postman Pat, Sooty, Count Duckula, Merry-go-Round (on a feature I co-created with artist Tim Perkins called ‘Izzy and Mortimer’), My Little Pony, Polly Pocket…
Another favourite was Red Dwarf, where I teamed up with another MOTU writer, Pat Kelleher, to co-script numerous strips – short gag features and longer multi-part stories. We took our cue from the books as much as the TV show, so there were lots of in-gags for the dedicated fans.
In the early to mid-00s you were the editor for a new run of MOTU comics published by Newsstand in Manchester, based on the relaunched toy line and accompanying cartoon series by Mike Young Productions. These reprinted the stories published in the US by MV Creations. How did you get the licence for these comics, and can you tell us a little more about your time working on them?
Initially, we approached Mattel with the idea of licensing Hot Wheels as a comics magazine – only to discover that we’d been beaten to the punch by Egmont who were busily planning to launch the mag later that year. As part of those discussions, the new MOTU came up in conversation and we were invited along to a presentation that introduced the Mike Young animation and highlighted Mattel’s plans for the relaunch. We were suitably enthused (and Mattel loved the idea that we were familiar with the brand) and so we made a deal for MOTU.
I’ll confess now that I was more motivated by my own fondness for MOTU rather than any cold, hard business logic – but the new stuff looked fun and Mattel were so easy to work with that it would have been a wasted opportunity not to at least give it a go. While never a huge seller, it did relatively well, and was always in the top half of our sales charts. In fact, the decision to cancel was only made when we were downsizing (because of the general economic slowdown and the huge difficulties facing all magazine publishers). We had to drop half our line as we were losing staff. It came down to MOTU and another title – and we went with the latter because MOTU was more of a perennial brand and we already knew that the Mike Young show had been axed. For a while, though, we considered continuing with MOTU. It lasted for 18 months which, given the market conditions at the time, was pretty healthy. Routinely, comic magazines came and went within 12 months. If the relaunched MOTU had achieved the same ‘poor’ sales as LEM’s She-Ra, it would have been an industry-wide bestseller, not just a success for Toontastic/Newsstand. And, of course, the market has only gotten tougher in the ensuing years. It costs many tens of thousands of pounds for a publisher to launch a new title – spent largely on retailer promotions, where publishers agree to pay shops/retailers vast sums just to gain a spot on the racks.
One thing that is often picked up on regarding the Newsstand comics in the 00s is the mismatch of tone – while the stories from MV Creations are much more dark and violent than the 80s material ever was, the comics were designed and marketed purely as young children’s comics, with features such as ‘solve the maze’ puzzles, readers’ drawings and toys as free gifts. This was a younger tone than even the original 80s comics ever had, and yet the stories inside were clearly written for an older audience, with blood, gore and death – can you recall the reasons for this contrast, and did it ever cause any problems?
Again, I don’t really see the MV material as being all that dark and violent – it was perhaps pitched slightly older than the Mike Young show (which was itself pitched older than the Filmation material), but it was broadly of a similar nature. Plus, it was gorgeous looking stuff. Personally, I’d have preferred much shorter stories – but there’s no denying that the MV artwork crackled with a vibrant intensity. I always felt that even the youngest reader would get something out of the artwork – gazing at the exotic alien vistas and crowded battle scenes – just as I had done as an eight-year-old staring at 1970s Marvel Comics.
As for gore, I don’t really recall anything too explicit. The style was certainly in-your-face, very much Image-style American comics of the time, but nothing kids wouldn’t have been familiar with from video games/movies. I can only recall one page where we had to censor out a bit of blood dripping from a bat creature’s claws – but nothing extreme.
Another appeal of the MV material was that it kept our costs down. (The editorial budget per issue would have only been in the hundreds of pounds – certainly less than a thousand pounds per issue). In fact, Mattel asked us to use the MV material as it came ‘pre-approved’ and thus saved time on approvals. I believe it’s different now, but Mattel didn’t really have anyone in the UK who was invested in the ‘lore’ of MOTU. By using the American material, the approvals process was a breeze – no small consideration even on a monthly schedule.
As for the puzzle pages, as with everything, that was a compromise. We used style guide to create the pages and so they were done in-house (so no additional cost). At least to begin with, and particularly on the earlier issues where I was more hands-on, the intention was to make them as visually appealing as possible. The style guide was phenomenal – we had five or more disks crammed with great character art. I wanted to showcase as much of this as I could. I tried to devise puzzles that involved art – or drawing/creativity in some way. My printed copies of the mags are hidden away somewhere, so I can’t give exact numbers, but I never thought the puzzles dominated the mag. Out of 32 pages, we had about 7 ‘editorial’ pages – roughly four or so of which would be strictly puzzles. The rest were pin-ups, competitions etc. I certainly think the character bio page that we featured in every issue had some value. Yes, it was designed as a series of cut-out ‘trading cards’ but it also contained lots of background information for those unfamiliar with the brand. Again, when I was more hands-on, we tried to make the competition pages as attractive as possible – the comp for the Snakemen figures (from #3, I think?) comes to mind as pretty exciting page (hopefully) – something that had a visual appeal over and beyond its function as a giveaway comp.
Similarly, I was keen to show as much toy photography as we could. To this end we hired a photographer – Richard Dixon – who created all our toy-based covers and pin-ups. Richard had worked on Panini’s Action Man comic and, in addition to being a photographer, he was a skilled model maker and so was able to create backgrounds and model locales for the figures. On a toy-based mag, I think it’s important to include actual pics of the toys – somehow it feels more legitimate to me, ties the comic more directly into the brand. Looking back, I think the inspiration for that goes right back to the Mattel catalogue I mentioned earlier, with its publicity shots of the original MOTU line.
Free gifts were a necessity, I’m afraid. The market had changed dramatically and any comic without a gift was doomed to fail (as we’d learned to our cost on a couple of launches). In fact, the main purpose of the gifts wasn’t to excite potential readers, but to convince retailers to stock the comic. The bigger/splashier the gift the more likely stores were to take the title (which is why we went with two gifts – some sweets in addition to an actual toy – so we could shout 2 FREE GIFTS on the cover). It was all marketing – but marketing to the trade and not necessarily to the end consumer.
On the gifts where I was involved, I tried to add some sense of collectability, so that’s why we came up with the two Power Chain Keyrings (He-Man and Skeletor). And while obviously cheesy, who wouldn’t want an inflatable Power Sword? (Earlier, Panini had given away an inflatable Mjolnir with one of their Marvel comics and I still have one of those somewhere!)
Would I have been happier not to have to worry about such considerations (tight budgets and free gifts) and just concentrate on producing the comic? Sure, but times had moved on.
Did you ever want to produce new and original stories for the Newsstand comics?
I would have loved to have done that and get Brian and Pat involved (get the band back together!) but it would have been too cost prohibitive. One thing I was planning (and was salting a little editorial cash away each issue in order to achieve) was a short photo-based comic strip – using the toys and Richard’s photography skills.
The revised MOTU was a fun project and it ultimately led to Mattel asking us to take over the Hot Wheels comic, when Egmont pulled out of the project. So, in a bizarre way, everything came full circle.
I recall you registering on the he-man.org discussion forums at the time of the Newsstand comics. Did the input from the fans ever influence your work on these comics at all?
Ha, yeah, I registered on he-man.org numerous times – kept forgetting my passwords! I think I was familiar with it before the 200X relaunch and registered for a second (or third) time when I realised Val’s connection. I didn’t take anything specifically from it. I just thought it was (and still is) a tremendous resource. Naturally, given my background, I was particularly interested in the publishing archive – just loved seeing how the different international publishers had treated the brand over the years.
What sort of work have you been doing in more recent times, and would you be interested in working on MOTU comics again should the opportunity arise?
In recent years, I’ve done a lot of writing (and some editing) for Eaglemoss on their numerous comic-book partwork magazines. I wrote and edited Batman Automobilia and wrote the introductions/back-matter material for the 150 volume DC Comics Graphic Novel Collection. I’ve also written numerous issues of the Classic Marvel Figurine Collection, DC Super Hero Collection and the DC Chess Collection. Currently, I’m writing the fortnightly Marvel Movie Collection and have just finished a couple of mini collections based on the Flash TV show and the Batman: Arkham Asylum video game.
I’ve also worked on both the Immediate Media and Panini versions of Doctor Who Adventures – writing strips and text stories. The Immediate Media work was particularly challenging as we were limited to four-page stories, 14 or 15 panels in total, with no more than 15 words per dialogue balloon. It was fun to come up with a bare bones style – to strip everything away and just go with the essential. It was kind of like a comic-strip haiku. For Panini, I particularly enjoyed the Paternoster Gang text stories – again trying to tell a meaningful story in the most economical way possible.
I would love to work on MOTU again – in any capacity whatsoever! It’s still a favourite out of the many dozens of projects that I’ve worked on over the years. Like you guys, I dream about an archival collection of the UK comics – and in my particularly fanciful moments I wonder what something like ‘The Reality Shaper’ might look like with modern computerised lettering and colours… Or ‘The Last Unicorn’ with more sympathetic artwork…
Plus, I must congratulate you on the Character Compendium and forthcoming update. A tremendous body of work – and a real thrill to see it include lots of bits and pieces from my old stories. Who knew, thirty years ago, that the Spell of Omnipresence would still be remembered?!
On behalf of MOTU and POP fans everywhere, huge thanks James Hill for taking the time to talk to us, and thanks for all the entertainment you've provided us with through the MOTU/POP London Editions Comics!
© Aidan Cross, 2019.